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What is Informal Learning in the Workplace?

Informal learning is training that occurs spontaneously and organically—unlike formal learning which uses a rigidly-structured approach. The difference between the two training methods is a simple distinction, but one that has massive implications for your business.

You’re probably already familiar with multimodal learning, like visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Still, you might be less familiar with formal learning vs. informal learning. 

Formal training only accounts for about 10 percent of the average employee’s knowledge. The other 90 percent consists of informal learning—a vast resource your organization should use and support.  

As an employer, it’s crucial to understand the basics of informal learning so that you can reap the rewards. Discover the role of informal learning in the workplace, some everyday examples, the benefits, and, most importantly, how your organization can leverage formal and informal training to optimize your team’s performance. 

What does informal training look like?

When you hear words like training or learning, you probably imagine a classroom, lecture hall, online course, employee training session, or structured program that culminates in a certificate or award. These are all classic examples of formal learning, in which participants are taught according to a rigid plan or structure, usually designed with a specific time limit and objective. 

In stark contrast to formal learning activities, which take place at predetermined times and focus on preselected topics, informal learning is unstructured, natural, and spontaneous, for instance, asking a coworker for tips on troubleshooting a technical issue or Googling an unfamiliar term your supervisor used. 

Another key difference is that formal learning is provided to the participant (for instance, through a presenter or handbook). In contrast, informal learning is something the individual independently seeks out an active, self-directed approach that encourages a higher level of engagement. 

Types of informal learning

Informal learning can take place anytime, anywhere, including in the workplace. While you can’t force informal learning, you can create a culture and environment with more opportunities for it to take place naturally. 

For example, you can develop a mentorship or shadowing program where employees can learn informally by chatting and observing each other. This is also a form of social learning.

In addition to mentoring programs, here are a few other examples of informal learning: 

  • Chat applications like Slack and Microsoft Teams
  • Conferences 
  • Podcasts 
  • Self-study
  • Team-building activities and outings
  • Watching instructional videos

Benefits of encouraging informal learning in the workplace

Now that you know more about informal learning, it’s important to understand how your business can benefit from encouraging more informal learning among employees. Here are four advantages of integrating informal learning into your business strategy: 

More control equals better engagement

Employees thrive with self-directed learning, especially when expectations around remote work are shifting dramatically.

When your team members have control over the scope and schedule of their learning experience, they’re more likely to find topics that interest them and are less likely to procrastinate or lose focus.

Less structure equals less stress

Formal learning events or programs can be stressful-and potentially even perceived as a waste of time. Informal learning removes this burden because it occurs spontaneously and organically, moving with your workflow instead of slowing it down. 

Instead of causing stress, which hinders performance, many informal learning opportunities, like team outings and social learning, can be fun. This matters because, as research shows, happy team members are more likely to perform well.

Your knowledge base refreshes and expands

If you only rely on internal resources, you have limited opportunities to circulate new material or expertise. However, when employees engage in self-directed, informal learning, they bring new ideas and information from various external sources.

And when team members or departments start to share knowledge, such as through a Slack channel or mentor program, those conversations can generate even more ideas and solutions. 

You can save time and money

 The major practical reason to actively implement informal learning is that it impacts your bottom line. How dramatically? Consider “the protege effect,” the well-studied phenomenon that teaching others also helps us learn more effectively—a perfect example of informal learning, such as employees sharing knowledge through a learning management system. 

According to research, failure to capitalize on opportunities for

knowledge—sharing costs Fortune 500 companies over $31 billion annually. While informal learning can’t replace structured training, it can lighten some of the burdens and reduce your need to spend on formal programs or courses.

Workplace examples of informal learning

Informal learning, by definition, is unplanned and spontaneous. That means you can’t schedule a time or impose a structure for your employees to follow. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t encourage informal learning. 

On the contrary, there are multiple strategies you can use to create opportunities for informal learning. 

Here are a few examples of ways that employers can encourage more informal learning in the workplace: 

  • Encourage knowledge-sharing. Promote a culture where employees have the tools and flexibility to conduct research and share information.
  • Keep workplace learning resources organized and easily accessible. A learning management platform like WorkRamp can help you manage all your learning programs from one central command center and allow learners to access their learning on whichever device they prefer (desktop, mobile, tablet, etc.) 
  • Encourage social sharing and learning. Social learning, a perfect example of informal learning, is the idea that people learn more effectively by observing each other. Social sharing refers to posting and sharing content like an LMS dashboard’s social feed, whether on social media platforms or in other locations. 
  • Dedicate time for learning. Employees can’t learn, formally or informally, if they feel they’re already juggling too much. Remember that happier employees are more productive and strive to create space for lifelong learning

Every team has unique needs, goals, and priorities. Ultimately, the strongest approach is to start by identifying your team’s objectives, then develop an employee training strategy that incorporates formal and informal learning elements.

For example, plan team outings after formal training sessions where your employees can chat, socialize, and discuss what they’ve learned. 

How WorkRamp can help you build informal learning at your company

WorkRamp is an All-in-One Learning Platform where employees can share resources and learn at their own pace. In addition, social learning opportunities are built right into the platform.  

With WorkRamp, you can:

  • Create content easily with a drag-and-drop editor and a variety of learning content objects, including the ability to import SCORM files
  • Use guides, product tutorials, paths, certifications, events, libraries, challenges, and more to build comprehensive learning programs with numerous content tools to cater to multiple learning styles
  • Use additional professional and instructional design services for strategy and content creation to enhance and extend the capabilities of the existing L&D team

WorkRamp can help you create a culture of learning at your organization. Contact us to schedule a free, personalized demo.


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Emily Homrok

WorkRamp Contributor
Emily Homrok is a freelance copywriter with over eight years of writing experience. She graduated from Drexel University in 2011.

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